Jillian Williams does not belong on a golf course.
The boisterous, outgoing, relentlessly positive Texan participated in a lot of different sports growing up, including basketball, track, sport shooting, cheerleading, and volleyball, and in 2015, she made her dream of playing a college sport come true when she joined the volleyball team at Texas Lutheran University.
But golf? Nah. Golf would never do.
“I am too loud and crazy to do golf. I’d get kicked off the golf course if I was a golfer,” Williams said.
It seems counterintuitive, but that exact thinking is what led Williams, now 22, to choose amputation when she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in February 2016.
During warmups at a preseason tournament in 2015, the then freshman middle blocker bent down to pick up a ball and felt something pop in her knee.
She was no stranger to injuries and had even had surgery on the same knee (a peroneal nerve release) just six months before. Determined not to let a little pain slow her down in her first season of college volleyball, she hid the injury for as long as she could.
“It was weird, I could go all practice, I could play all day and not have any pain, but as soon as I got home and put my feet up and started resting, the pain just escalated,” Williams said.
When she finally sought treatment a few weeks later, it took months of tests and finally a biopsy to determine the cause of her pain. It turned out to be much more complex and problematic than just a torn ligament or fractured bone. She would need chemotherapy, and then the cancerous tumor in her knee would need to be removed.
Williams’ doctor, Valerae Lewis at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, laid out her young patient’s options. They could try to keep the leg, but that would risk the cancer coming back, and high-impact sports and exercise would be out of the question forever.
“I wouldn’t have been able to run, jump … Pretty much I’d be limited to like golfing, walking, and swimming as far as like activities,” Williams said.
And, as we’ve already established, golf was out of the question.
The other option was amputation — either a traditional above-knee amputation or rotationplasty, a procedure where part of the femur and the knee are removed and the bottom half of the leg is rotated 180 degrees and reattached, with the foot facing backwards and the ankle now functioning as a knee.
Lewis told Williams that rotationplasty would give her the best opportunity to live a normal life post-surgery, including playing sports.
Williams’ decision was almost instantaneous.
In July 2016, five months after her initial diagnosis, Williams got the rotationplasty surgery done.
“I didn’t want to limit myself, and I felt that if I were to keep my leg, I would be putting restrictions on myself that I personally was not ready for,” Williams said. “So when they said amputation, and they said that I would be able to do whatever I wanted, I was like, ‘OK, well then let’s cut it off.’ ”
Most people assume a cancer diagnosis and a limb amputation would be limiting, but for Williams the opposite has been true. Since that day in February 2016 when she got the results of the biopsy, her world has only expanded.
Williams’ new adventures have included an opportunity to join the U.S. women’s sitting national volleyball team. She even made the 2018 Sitting Volleyball World Championships roster and traveled with Team USA to the Netherlands last summer.
“When I got back in the hospital for my amputation [in 2016], my teammate Bethany (Zummo) was in Sports Illustrated and someone sent it to me,” Williams said.
At that time, Williams had mentally shut the door on volleyball, thrown away her volleyball shoes and instead started thinking about going back to sport shooting. But the article on Zummo gave her pause.
“I was like, ‘Huh. Maybe this is something that I should be doing.’ ”
In the months after her amputation, as she went through grueling physical therapy and began the long process of learning to use a prosthesis, Williams also started teaching herself to play sitting volleyball.
“I watched YouTube videos, and I just tried moving for myself,” she said. “As far as volleyball goes, it’s pretty normal, like pass, set, attack. But as far as movement goes, you don’t have your feet anymore, so it’s like, teach your arms and your shoulders to move like they’re feet. Use your wrists to support you like your ankles would. So it was kind of weird. It was pretty difficult.”
As she taught herself the basics of sitting volleyball and worked to get stronger, lifting weights and doing yoga and CrossFit, Williams reached out to Lora Webster, a member of the USA sitting team who also had rotationplasty. Webster not only responded, but advised Williams on how to land a tryout for the team.
First, Williams had to attend an A2 camp, the feeder program to the national team. She ended up returning to Oklahoma City, home of the sitting national team, for three different camps, and while she was there, the coaches and staff encouraged her to move to Oklahoma to get more touches on the ball and improve her chances of making the team.
At the time, Williams had only recently returned to classes at TLU, but just like with making the decision to go for rotationplasty, she barely hesitated, telling her parents confidently, “I’m moving to Oklahoma.”
“Deep down, I really craved being back in volleyball,” Williams said.
Two and a half years after receiving the diagnosis of cancer and thinking her volleyball career was over, Williams went from Division III athlete to professional sitting volleyball player, competing at the highest level in the sport.
“Of course everybody’s dream is to one day be a professional athlete, but if you would have told me my freshman year of college that I would one day be playing a professional sport, I would have been like, you’re crazy,” Williams said. “I just wanted to play volleyball in college and kind of be done. It’s really crazy to think about and take in. It sometimes is really surreal.”
As she continues to gain strength, Williams is getting closer and closer to being able to play standing volleyball again, if she wants to. A couple months ago, she even did her first box jump with the prosthesis.
“GUYS I could literally cry!!” she wrote in a post on Instagram. “It has been over three years since I’ve done a box jump! THREE YEARS!! Jumping has been something I have done forever! I was a competitive cheerleader, long and high jumper and volleyball player, so not jumping since my diagnosis and amputation has been difficult.”
In addition to morphing a potentially tragic turn of events into an international athletics career, Williams created the Live n Leap Foundation, a Make a Wish-type organization for adolescents and young adults diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses. The foundation grants “leaps,” for those too old to participate in Make a Wish, and to date those leaps have included a trip to Hawai’i, two Disney cruises, and a wedding.
While training with the sitting national team, Williams is also pursuing her undergraduate degree at the University of Central Oklahoma. She has shared her story on the TODAY Show and in Shape magazine, and in 2017, the AVCA honored her with its Courage Award.
“To say that my opportunities have come because of an amputation is like even crazier, cause most people think when you have your leg amputated, the world stops,” Williams said. “I’ve gotten so many more opportunities since then.”